Emotions: What do we do with them?
By Debra Hoffman, Ph.D.
It has been a difficult week. Your close friend had a death in his family and you were up late last night due to attending calling hours. Your supervisor has asked you to do some additional research that she needs quickly so that she can present it at an important meeting. Normally, the time pressure would energize you, but today, it is paralyzing. You feel like you might cry, but are not sure. You wonder to yourself, "Why is this happening? Why can’t I focus? Is there some way that I can regain my ability to concentrate?"
Which of these might you choose?
- Take a 15 minute break to call a friend and ask for some help talking through your experience.
- Pause your work and ask yourself, "What am I feeling?" Try to notice the physical sensations you are experiencing in your body. Try to identify and label the emotion.
- Ignore this unusual reaction and hope for it to disappear soon.
- Have a snack.
Managing emotions can be challenging, especially when it feels like they are more intense than usual. Many factors can contribute to this including physical illness, tiredness, or hunger. Although there are differences in how each one of us experiences emotions, there are some strategies that are generally helpful for everyone.
Most importantly, try to stay open and curious about the emotion, instead of pushing it away. We are not all taught how to label our emotions, so it can be helpful to learn more about the physical sensations or action urges that tend to accompany them. For example, muscles tightening, hands clenching, or urges to hit someone or something can accompany anger. Disgust can bring feelings of nausea and an urge to gag, vomit or clean one’s self. With sadness, a person may feel tired, unmotivated, and having an urge to stay in bed all day. It may feel like a pain or hollowness in your chest.*
So, by now you have probably realized that the ideal response to the scenario described above is either 1 or 2. If you choose option 3, and try to completely ignore this emotion, it is not likely that it will just "disappear." Sometimes unexpressed emotion can even contribute to physical discomfort like stomachaches, headaches, or muscle tension. If you choose option 4 and have a snack, then it is possible that you will get through the moment, but end up perpetuating a cycle of "emotional eating."
That said, we have all had times when it is especially hard to manage a strong emotion, so it can be helpful to be patient with yourself if you revert back to avoiding emotional reaction. It can be difficult to sort through emotions, especially after a stressful life transition or when you have a tendency to become depressed or anxious. If you are struggling with this, you may want to consider therapy. You may contact Behavioral Health Partners (BHP) to set up an appointment with a mental health professional who can accurately assess your symptoms and make recommendations for treatment. You can reach BHP by calling (585) 276-6900.
Behavioral Health Partners is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety and depression. *Adapted from DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, by Marsha Linehan. Copyright 2015.
Keith Stein |